The first restaurant I ever went to on Jonathan Gold’s recommendation was the Vermont Coffee Teriyaki House on 1st Street in Koreatown. At that time, in the summer of 1990, we were living in downtown Los Angeles in a massive, dilapidated loft on Olympic and Wall Street, above Mushrooms, Incorporated, in an unreinforced masonry building with a leaky roof and a ridiculous bathroom down the hall; a weirdly beautiful place with a squeaking floor of ancient painted pine, 18-foot ceilings and, in the middle of our studio, a spooky, darkly forbidding disused elevator shaft hidden behind steel doors that you could open to look vertiginously down into this cavernous musty pit! In summer, there were so many mosquitoes from the fruit in the produce district that we slept under a net. A year or so later, a sudden and inexplicable revulsion at the taste of a longed-for martini would portend the arrival of my now 25-year-old daughter, but for now I was a fancy-free, more-dash-than-cash designer of overpriced tchotchkes for the home.
In his review, Gold described what would become my favorite dish at Vermont Coffee Teriyaki both accurately and irresistibly: “old-fashioned fried rice, thick with bits of omelet and fragrant with burnt soy, in a battered, flat-bottomed wok.” Here, obviously and from the first minute, was a profound literary gift bent to the task of describing street food. The care and vigilance, the sense of lusciousness and the searing aliveness with which he wrote about this working-class dive were electrifying. It was more evidence of what I’d been learning in my work; that it was awareness of the world, sensitivity and not money, that betokens taste and elegance. Plus, here was a fantastic-sounding place that I could afford to visit.
So I dragged my then-husband over to Vermont Coffee Teriyaki the very next day. The burger answered just exactly to Gold’s description of it:
Most of what you want is included for about 4 bucks on the number four plate: two teriyaki sticks, a cheeseburger, a can of soda and more fried rice than you can comfortably eat, though you will. The cheeseburger’s theme is crispness–crisp lettuce, crisp bun, crisp, paper-thin patty of meat–and it’s pretty swell, though the beef comes across more as an interesting condiment than as, say, a burger.
Because that was the main thing, the crazy thing, about Jonathan Gold: you’d read about a dish he described, immediately conceive a profound, unanswerable yen for that dish, drive to freakin’ Monterey Park or Santa Monica or Gardena in order to answer the unanswerable, and he’d have been right. Every time. So true! So just. The Vermont Coffee Teriyaki burger was a fairly insubstantial proposition compared to the giant oozing monstrosities you’d be served elsewhere. But so perfectly balanced, so delicious and yes, utterly, undeniably. Crisp.
His had this gift of literary synesthesia, a diamond bond of truth between word and sensation.
I went to probably dozens of restaurants over the years because he said to, so many I can’t even remember, but off the top of my head, Animal. Din Tai Fung. Church & State. Chengdu Taste. His annual 101 list so closely and consistently mirrored my own feelings about our city’s places. Valentino still appeared every year, even though it is so old-fashioned, and so did Musso’s.
On the day my daughter turned 21 this year, I took her for her first martini at Musso & Frank. There was no question. And I’m afraid the rest of her drinking life will be downhill from there. Because if a restaurant was once forward-thinking enough to let William Faulkner hop behind the bar to mix his own mint juleps, the rest of us can do nothing but clutch our gin rickeys a little tighter in gratitude.
He loved Los Angeles, the real Los Angeles. All of it. The Kogi truck, La Casita, and Sqirl. All of this indicated a profound and correct understanding of the true, internal contours of our city: polyglot, kaleidoscopic, endlessly fun and endlessly strange. But of all the wild-goose-chases he sent me on, what really flew into my mind when I heard of Gold’s death was Vermont Coffee Teriyaki House, and how much I’d like to order a No. 1 there, with my customary cherry 7-Up, in his honor. I was horrified to find that it has closed.